Ye Olyde School: Donald Featherstone’s War Games through the Ages Series

Wednesday , 4, November 2015 5 Comments

War Games through the Ages Vol. 1Vox recently called for contributors to a Wargame Wednesday feature which will tie in with an initiative in support of a new game release from Excalibre Games. Excalibre specializes in old school, turn based, cardboard counter games board games. Many of these games were well received and remind me of the old Avalon Hill classics. That being said, the subject matter of Wargame Wednesday posts is not set in stone and the various contributors will definitely cover a broad range of topics.

It has been a while since I have played one of the old board games but the time has come to dust off the cobwebs and explore one of the foundations of the modern hobby. These games will not appeal to everyone but my intent is to highlight interesting aspects of gaming culture that modern games may not be familiar with or at least provide the older gamers an interesting read or highlight something they are unfamiliar with. In future posts I’d like to explore the thought that despite the obvious costs in time and effort required to play these games (learn a rule set, set up, manually move counters, figure combat odds ratios) the benefits of playing an intellectually challenging game that allows social interaction amongst friends is almost a revolutionary act in the age of iPhone and social media induced isolation.

Despite the long board game intro my thoughts turned to miniature wargaming, which is an even more “labor intensive” branch of our hobby and had the same popularity arc as the board games described above. Popular contemporary examples are the Games Workshop (Fantasy and Science Fiction) or the popular Flames of War line (World Wars I and II). For those without any experience of miniature war gaming the Wikipedia article on the subject provides a good overview.

Scroll down the article to the notable miniature war gamers section you’ll see a link for Donald Featherstone. The linked article is short and doesn’t really do justice to his influence on popularizing the hobby from the early 1960’s up through 80’s but a quick scan of his bibliography section really brings home his prodigious output and contribution to the hobby.

I’ve inherited a few of Mr. Featherstone’s books, amongst titles from other authors, but my favorites from childhood onwards has been his War Games through the Ages Series. The intent of the series was to give the war gamer a general overview of various armies and provide information about their arms, equipment and tactics. These are not rule books but are intended to “…suggest rudimentary ideas that will simulate the reader into experimenting until he has perfected and polished them into soundly constructed rules that suit both his temperament and his personal conception of warfare.” The series comes in four volumes though I can only review the first three as the fourth volume went missing in one of my or my Dad’s innumerable moves. I have purchased a used copy online and if there is sufficient interest can update this post with details on the final volume but in the meantime have provided a link to a brief review and listed the subject matter.

Despite the fact that the series was written for the miniature war gamer in mind I highly recommend picking up a copy if you are ever lucky enough to find one available online in your price range or at a yard sale. Even though the scope of the series precludes in-depth historical background as a young student I found the series useful as a beginning reference for various papers and as a gamer I appreciated the emphasis on playing an army using the tactics and dealing with the limitations faced by the historical commanders or in Donald Featherstone’s own words from the first volume’s introduction: “Each section details the technique and styles of fighting of the various nations and armies and offers suggestions how this can best be simulated on a table-top battlefield.” He goes on to explain that war gamers take great care in researching their armies, paint them as accurately as possible to create the most reasonable simulation then it “…all falls down at one critical point – unable to move under their own volition, the small model soldiers are strategically and tactically directed by the war gamer himself, who maneuvers his armies with a military hindsight denied to their real-life commanders of long ago.” The figures on the table top may be dressed as Romans and Greeks but they are played using tactics “that would have done credit to Wellington in the Peninsula, Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley or Montgomery in Libya”. Featherstone then gives the example of a gamer choosing to collect and fight a Roman army against Britons or Gauls and after reading the relevant sections would “…know that they will advance in a certain formation, that they will hurl their pila and then come to close quarters with the gladius. After a simulated 15 minutes of fighting, they will be withdrawn and a fresh century or cohort thrown in to take their place.” On the other hand their enemies “…will fight in a desperate and ferocious fashion rather resembling the headlong charges of the Dervishes in the Sudan towards the end of the 19th century”.

Each volume is slightly different in its methodology ways, whereas the first volume covers each army separately the second volume groups the subject matter into wars, while the third volume is organized by campaigns from the French Revolution to Waterloo, though the final chapters cover the War with America, 1812-1815, the U.S. – Mexican War of 1846-1848, the Crimean War and ends with the War of Austria with France and Piedmont in 1859.
The first volume; which is probably my favorite, covers the Ancient period from 3,000 BC to 1,500 AD. It features an extensive lists of armies and provides a rough means of comparing them all with a Fighting Assessment score. This assessment is simple and covers many factors that were integral to an army’s effectiveness and ability. A fighting assessment (FA) chart is provided for each army listing 20 factors ranging from the ability to assault in controlled order, bravery, discipline, ferocity, maneuverability (love the British spelling but glad I didn’t have to memorize it: manoeuvrability), and the likelihood of demoralization or panic. Each factor is graded on a four point scale with three points being First Class and zero being No Ability at all. This rough method is “Based on the belief that the Roman army, in its hey-day, was most likely to achieved almost 100% scoring in the majority of these factors”. Besides the FA each chapter contains a brief historical background and discussion on the weapons, tactics and leadership of the army in question.

The armies range from the Sumerians (FA 10 – “A disorderly, disorganized, undisciplined mob of levies, including bowmen, with little organization”), the Assyrians (FA52 – “Probably the best drilled and discipline army until the Romans”) and the Romans; which is probably the longest chapter of the book as the discussion ranges from the earliest times to the Marian Legion period. It is a weakness of the book that Featherstone didn’t figure FAs for distinct periods but I’ll cut him a break as he had at least 30 more books to write in his career! He gives the Romans of all periods a FA of 55.

The Mongols are represented and give a FA of 50 – “On occasions, the Mongol fire-power was augmented by portable artillery such as in 1258 A.D. when Hulagu Khan had in his artillery train a large corps of Chinese engineers to work the mangonels and the machines that discharged three large naphtha-tipped fire arrows simultaneously” along with the Japanese with a FA of 19 – “There was little control or discipline and no tactical planning” though I tend to disagree with this assessment as it seems Featherstone is concentrating on the Samurai warriors who “…with their own band of retainers fought their part of the battle in the manner of their own choosing” which doesn’t do justice to the formidable land armies Hideyoshi used to invade Korea.

The second volume moves to the “Horse and Musket” period, 1420 – 1783. The FA is reduced to thirteen factors with broader flavors such as the mercenary composition of the armies and religious fervor. Each factor is graded from 1 point – Below Average to 3 points – Above Average. A suggested refinement given to the FAs is a Battle Effectiveness Factor or the point at which an army or unit loses morale and withdraws from combat which is a concept used in many modern games.

Before the listings there is a chapter on the fog of war as the introduction of gun powder obscured the battlefields of the day. The very feature of miniature war gaming, which is a bird’s eye view of one’s beautifully painted army, proudly arranged in formation on an aesthetically pleasing table top is also a weakness as the players have a view of the battle the commanders never had. Featherstone suggests accounting for smoke on the battlefield by means of cotton balls after a side fires a volley, with increasing thickness after the firing of successive volleys along with adjustments for shooting into the fog without aiming and features such as units not able to take any automatic defensive action against an approaching enemy they cannot see (for example, infantry not able to form a defensive square as cavalry approaches unseen in the smoke). There is even consideration of the weather and if there is a light or strong wind.

The listings begin with the Hussite Wars 1419-1434 and give Jan Ziska’s troops a formidable FA of 40 against the Catholic Knights subpar FA of 14. Due to the disparity between the armies’ fighting assessments a suggested point system is listed for those wanting to create balanced armies with values ranging from one point for Peasants, three points for Catholic men at arms and five points for Catholic knights while Hussite pike men are worth five points and a Hussite battle wagon is worth 120 points.

Many chapters contain figures showing the typical tactical formations of the armies as shown by the following picture taken from the Dutch Revolt 1566 -1609 (Dutch: FA 38, Spanish: FA 32):Dutch Revolt
Volume Two ends with the War of the American Revolution with the British given a FA of 29; “British commanders…were experienced and competent professionals whose leadership was badly affected by the low standards of regimental and company officers “and the Americans a FA of 26 with the suggestion to assign panic ratings to units with the militia more likely to break than battle seasoned regulars.

Volume Three covers the popular “Napoleonic” period from 1792 – 1859. The FAs are tweaked with supply replacing the religious fervor of an earlier age and even though all volumes discuss the effect of generals and great leaders there is an extensive chapter covering the great captains along with a rule set assigning commanders down to the Brigade level an above, average or below average ability which affects the commander’s exact execution of orders and tendency to show excessive caution despite orders in the face of the enemy. Additional chapters cover the fog of war, and explore unique formations and tactics of the time such as the infantry square as a defensive measure against cavalry, the role of skirmishers, and the French column versus British line.

Of note, I find the French in Egypt 1798 – 1801 chapter to be interesting with unique FAs with the French given a FA of 32 until Bonaparte’s departure when the factor points for commander drop from 3 to 1, subordinate commanders dropping from 3 to 2 and moral from an already average 2 to 1. The Mamelukes opposing the invaders are given a FA of 18 as they deploy mostly peasant levies; “although Mameluke cavalry were first class natural fighters in a Medieval manner” with an all-around poor rating for infantry and good for cavalry.

A separate FA chart is given for the British intervention in 1801 with the British led by top rated commanders. The British FA is 30 opposed to the French FA of 22.
I found a limited review at the Lone Warrior Blog: lonewarriorswa.com covering Volume 4. According to the review wars covered are: the American Civil War, Wars of Italian Unification, Rise of Prussia, Franco-Prussian War, Russo-Turkish War, Rise of Japan, Spanish-American War, Boer War, World War One, Spanish Civil War, and World War II though the reviewers notes that a fighting assessment is missing for WWI. Go to lonewarriorswa.com, then click on the Reviews link at the top of the page. There’s quite of few reviews of other Featherstone books so to easily find the reviews do a CTRL-F and search for War Games through the Ages.

For those interested in picking up any of these volumes Amazon.com seems to have the best selection at this time with some volumes selling for a reasonable price. Volume 1 goes for as low as $10.55 as I type this, while the lowest price for Volume 2 is $120. For those interested and with enough disposable income you may get one of the sellers to accept an offer of $100 but as much as I love this series I don’t think I’d pay the price. Volume 3 can be had for about $45 and Volume 4 is currently going for as low as $25.

It seems that abebooks.com’s prices are a little better with Volume 3 selling for $33 but Volume 2 not on offer at this time. The availability may be better in the UK so if you’re over there and are browsing in a used book shop keep your eyes open.

If you have any suggestions on war game books that had a profound influence on you or your game play feel free to send the title and why you recommend it to: yeolydeschool@outlook.com and in a future post I’ll list it.

-Scott

5 Comments
  • Astrosorceror says:

    What are good war game systems to adapt to FRP and S/F RPGs? All too often I’ll have a game where most of the high level stuff is building up the army, and preparing logistics and such. Then the game is a running narrative of the battle, with maybe a few action scenes with the characters.

    I can’t be the only one, where the PCs end up running a frontier town or castle, and then have to resolve the upcoming battle with orcs or a bandit kingdom…

  • Scott says:

    Astrosorceror,

    I don’t have a miniature game system compatible with RPGs off the top of my head unless it is Gary Gygax’s Chainmail.

    Thanesgames had a fantasy rule set but that one called for a lot figures and massive dice rolls.

    Believe you can search online and find a .pdf download.

    Beyond providing some background the rule suggestions in this series of books would not tie in well with any historical RPG.

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